Category Archives: research

Building Confidence: The Shergold-Weir Report and its Implications for Architects

The Shergold-Weir Report argues for better quality documentation and improved oversight. What do the recommendations mean for architects?

In mid-2017 the Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) asked Professor Peter Shergold and Ms. Bronwyn Weir to undertake an assessment of the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry across Australia. The final report ‘Building Confidence’ was recently delivered to the BMF and is available for review here.

The stated goal of the report is to “enhance public trust through effective implementation of building and construction standards that protect the interests of those who own, work, live, or conduct their business in Australian buildings.” The report has a number of recommendations about the whole process of building and maintaining safe and well-constructed buildings, and has special significance in the wake of the Lacrosse and Grenfell Tower fires. It mainly deals with “commercial” rather than domestic scale buildings.

The report also has a number of observations and recommendations, which affect architects in our roles during design, construction and ongoing maintenance of buildings. If implemented it will change many aspects of the construction process, and in doing so it also presents a number of opportunities for architects to re-occupy areas of practice we have lost to other practitioners.

Building confidence and ensuring integrity

“The quality of buildings depends heavily on the competency and integrity of builders. There are many builders that have high standards of competency and integrity. However, the rates of disputes, alleged defects and reports of high levels of illegal phoenix activity are evidence that there are shortcomings in the performance of some builders. These need to be addressed.[p13]

Shergold and Weir are clear that there is insufficient supervision, auditing and expertise in the industry, and too many practitioners willing to take short cuts to save money and time. They also note that there are many conflicts of interest in the way compliance is achieved through private certifiers employed by the client or builder, and an unwillingness for certifiers or the approving authorities to enforce standards during construction. A number of recommendations address those conflicts by better documentation, registration of building practitioners, auditing of those practitioners, and inspections and checking during and after construction.

Registration of building practitioners

While there has been little progress on a true national scheme for registration of architects, our profession is often seen as a model for other building practitioners, where registration and licensing schemes vary widely between states and there is little appetite to harmonise systems or introduce mutual recognition across state borders. It also strongly endorses CPD (not yet a feature of all Architect’s Acts) and subcategories of registration for different building types – something which may be problematic for smaller architectural firms. It recommends strict controls on who can provide performance-based solutions under the NCC and when third-party certification of those solutions is required. Registered practitioners would also be required to have their work audited – so architects’ documentation for building rules consent could be audited by a third party. Building designers would also need to be registered – something which architects have long called for. It also calls for a consistent approach to the registration of builders, specialist subcontractors (especially fire contractors) and engineers.

Quality of documentation

There have been many reports over many years calling for better quality documentation by design professionals.  Shergold and Weir note:

“The adequacy of documentation prepared and approved as part of the building approvals process is often poor. The tendency for inadequate documentation to be prepared and accepted by building surveyors at the building approvals stage has increased, in part because of owners and developers endeavouring to minimise costs on documentation. This issue needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.

… Inadequate documentation can also result in hidden costs or allow builders to cut costs without owners being aware of it.

The integrity of documentation for future use is also compromised when the approval documents do not reflect the as-built building, or when they contain insufficient detail to properly inform building risk and maintenance requirements.” [p28]

Many of the problems noted are blamed on procurement methods, and in particular Design and Construct. The report notes often architects are not retained through the whole construction period.

“…architects and engineers have indicated that they may be engaged early in a project to prepare initial documentation but that their engagement then ends. Detailed construction documentation is prepared by others who may not possess the relevant skills. When products specified are substituted, architects, engineers and building surveyors may not be consulted.” [p31]

The report notes that the process for approving changes during construction is flawed, and that as-built documentation is either non-existent or of poor quality. It recommends that comprehensive digital manuals be required and that they should be stored centrally by government to allow access in the future by owners and maintainers of buildings.

Recommendation 16 of the report states that each jurisdiction should provide for a building compliance process that incorporates clear obligations for the approval of amended documentation by the appointed building surveyor throughout a project. It notes:

“Implementation of this recommendation will be challenging. It requires designers, building surveyors and builders to work to properly document design and construction specifications. This is the lynchpin of a best practice building approvals system and considerable effort will be required to effectively bring about systemic change in this area.” [p32]

Shergold and Weir envisage a very different system to that currently in place – but one that ensures the safety and amenity of the users of our buildings.

What does it mean for architects?

Architects must firstly take responsibility for, and publicly commit to, a better quality of documentation. The skill set for producing such documentation has reduced over the past generation, and the downward pressure on fees has seen it lost as a core business of many architectural firms. It is not seen as glamorous, award-winning or valued by clients, builders or end users. Endless reports on the value of good documentation go ignored, especially when fees and scope are negotiated. Footage of the Grenfell and Lacrosse fires should have awakened a new desire by architects to argue for good documentation, procurement and construction practice.

Our profession already has registration and a relatively good system for dealing with complaints from the public – but does it actually want to fight for a role as a leader in construction industry for integrity, competence and high levels of technical skill? Will we welcome the idea of auditing of our work and accepting criticism of poor documentation without blaming clients, builders and fees? These are moral, not just business choices, and lives depend on it.

Judging by past efforts to achieve any national improvement in the construction industry, the three tiers of our wonderful federated system of government will conspire to stuff it up. As architects, we owe it to the public to advocate for a better, safer and more trustworthy industry.  We need all architects to step up alongside us. You’d better start writing to politicians today if you want that vision for the future.

This article was first published on the Association of Consulting Architects Website

Research in Practice

John Held reflects on conjunctions of research and practice in a talk presented at the Australian Institute of Architects Flipped Forum, which asked ‘Can practice lead research?’

What does it mean to ‘flip’? In the strict pedagogical definition, it denotes swapping the roles of classroom and homework – reviewing and gathering content out of session, and using face-to-face time for discussion and exploration of the topic. But in the context of this discussion more likely it refers to the idea of practice-led or practice-based research. What forms could that take?

I have a bit of a problem with the definition of ‘practice’ as an activity divorced from academia, and the related idea of practice being just about business, profitability and technical capability.

How not to do it

Our firm was approached by a university a few years ago for seed funding for an interesting project related to sustainability. We considered it carefully but they didn’t want us involved in the research – ‘please hand us your money and we’ll give you a report at the end’. Any chance of learning went out the window, as did we.

How it informs design

If you are to be good at what you do, you have to keep up with research. If you are going to be involved in design for education, know what the research is saying.

As an example, the research of Carla Rinaldi and her influence on early childhood education in South Australia continues as architects participate in joint research on pedagogy and architecture as part of the South Australian Collaborative Childhood Project.

Keeping abreast of research on environments for aged people with memory loss is critical if your buildings are going to be calmer, happier places in which to live.

Our work with Guida Moseley Brown on Mawson Institute Building V was informed by research on research – the concept of placing disparate science and engineering disciplines together; with offices and labs directly connected, and making those researchers bump into each other and help solve each other’s problems.

So perhaps the concept of practitioners and researchers ‘bumping into each other’ is an inspiration for how we should approach practice and research.

How does it happen in practices?

In the midst of project deadlines and dramas and worrying about not having enough work or too much work, the importance of both reflective practice and internal research is really important.

Access to your own data for decision-making doesn’t sound like high-end research, but it’s surprising the stories you hear of architects who have no idea about the detail of their own practices.

In our case, as an example, we’ve spent a great deal of time and reflection on how to change workflows, project processes and outputs to suit truly collaborative BIM workflows.

It may not sound grand but it involves the same methodologies as academic research. We are also researching ways of integrating Virtual Reality into those workflows – not just for clients, but as part of our design review processes.

Finally, we realise the important links between the universities and practice, which is why we have three of our staff teaching and always have students working for us to keep those links alive.

Few small practices have the resources to fund academic research – but as a profession we should be doing this.

How does it happen as a profession?

We really dropped the ball in the last 15 years as a profession in terms of research about architects.  There’s been no significant work done on the effect of documentation quality on construction costs for 17 years. It’s even longer since the CSIRO did research on fees.

We don’t know how many architects there are in Australia, how many work in alternative roles, what happens to graduates after university, and why starting salaries are below most other professions.

Susan Shannon’s work was the first I’d seen tracking graduates – and should be the basis of a much bigger longitudinal survey over many years to get a better understanding of what we actually do as architects – and as graduates who don’t get registered but do other equally important things.

The Parlour survey was the first time we’d seen the scope of the many different ways you can practice architecture.

Locally, the SA State of the Profession survey highlighted a number of issues that need to be addressed – pay, gender equity, career paths, the unexplained dropout of mid-career architects and, most importantly, the future of the profession. But tellingly, we couldn’t get the required outcomes from universities – at least not for the budget we had available.  We ended up going to people who bridge academia and other non-traditional forms or practice – in this case, Justine Clark and Gillian Matthewson.  And trying to get a national version of the survey up finding the funding is proving very difficult.

The spinoff – a great series of reflective pieces under the theme “Where to From Here” – again highlight a diversity of practice and a belief in the future of our profession.

Our next try at research is to get access to the large amounts of data held by government clients – in this case DPTI – to actually find out relationships between fees, hours, and building outcomes.

How does it happen as a policy instrument?

If you are going to lobby on behalf of architects to government or clients you had better have some facts to back it up – even in this world of alternative facts.

You want to change the type of procurement? Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.

Want us to work for free?  Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.

Want to cut our fees again?  Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.

Want to push us downstream, rather than as a trusted advisor?  Here’s the evidence.

But it’s hard to find good evidence, because the research isn’t there.

We don’t have a group whose sole purpose is to produce solid research: even if the answers are not quite what you hoped.

How does it happen as an industry?

It doesn’t – at least not enough. The lack of investment in R&D in the industry is well known, and because so much of it is fragmented and comprised of very small organisations it’s not likely to improve without external funding sources.

This is too big a topic for today – suffice to say that if architects don’t help lead the push for more research, other groups will, to our detriment.

Conclusion

Firstly, we need to see practice and academia as a continuum, as opposed to polar opposites, because that is how it is in the real world. At the same time, we need to understand who is doing the big picture thinking about the future of practice.  This can only happen if you treat “practice” (in all its forms) as a subject worthy of academic discourse and research.

Our main task, therefore, is to strengthen links between academia and practice – and understand that all the different and alternative futures of the profession are reliant on this.